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Giant extinct burrowing bat discovered in New Zealand

11 January 2018

The prehistoric animal derives its name from the team member, Jenny Worthy, who excavated the fossilized remains of this burrowing bat. Even at this modest weight, it's the biggest burrowing bat that we know of. The ancient species belongs to a lineage that used to flourish in the southern landmasses of Australia, New Zealand, South America and possibly Antarctica.

"This unusual fossil bat is very different from the bats living in New Zealand today, and shows that we are missing a huge amount of their evolutionary history", researcher Robin Beck said in the statement.

In findings published in the journal Scientific Reports, the scientists said the bat was peculiar because it not only flew but also scurried about on all fours over the forest floor, under leaf litter and along branches foraging for food.

A newly discovered extinct bat from New Zealand was enormous, had a broad diet, and was able to fly through the air as well as burrow into the ground. Although they also lived in Australia, nowadays, burrowing bats can only be found in New Zealand. Their diet was likely very similar to modern bats, including insects and possibly plant life such as fruit, but they may have been even more capable predators than bats of today.

New Zealand's burrowing bats that exist today eat insects that they catch on the wing or chase by foot. All of the remains point to a bat that weighed about 40 grams and those teeth suggest it ate both the meat of small invertebrates and lots of plants.

"Burrowing bats are more closely related to bats living in South America than to others in the southwest Pacific", says study first author and University of New South Wales Professor Sue Hand. At that time Antarctica was green and without ice, as temperatures were nearly 54 degrees Fahrenheit higher. After tectonic activity fragmented these landmasses, Australasia's burrowing bats became isolated from their South American relatives. Antarctica, for instance, was covered in lush forests and was ice-free.

"This weird bat is among the most freakish of all the fossils that we've found", said Te Papa museum curator Alan Tennyson, a New Zealand member of the team which also included scientists from Australia, Britain and the United States. The environmental changes left many species vulnerable - and Vulcanops was not alone.

Vulcanops went extinct after the early Miocene period - as did a number of species in the region, including crocodiles, turtles, pigeons, parrots and palaelodids, which were a bit like flamingos.

Today, only two bat species comprise the entire native land mammal fauna in New Zealand. All other modern land mammals in the country were introduced by people within the past 800 years. Behind the discovery of the bat is an global team of researchers who published their findings in Scientific Reports.

Giant extinct burrowing bat discovered in New Zealand